I Was a High School Cheerleader : Teens: More varsity athletes like Canoga Park High's Andy Lerma are taking on a surprising sideline.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andy Lerma is the kind of guy who would normally get teased by football players. He is, after all, a cheerleader.

But at Canoga Park High School, nobody on the team makes fun of Andy because he is also their star linebacker.

Just imagine: The Canoga Park Hunters call a timeout so No. 8 can run off the field to wave his pompons. Or, just before a crucial fourth down, Andy steps away from the huddle and pleads with the crowd to "Show some spirit!"

That's not how it works. Andy sticks to the gridiron during football season, practicing with the cheerleading squad only on occasional weekends. And what he does when he's out of helmet and pads has little to do with pompons or yelling.

High school cheerleading has become a highly athletic endeavor, filled with acrobatic stunts and precision dancing. Schools compete at state and national meets that are televised. At more and more campuses across the country, varsity athletes are moonlighting as cheerleaders.

Andy is among the top echelon of this new breed. With strength and agility befitting a 6-foot-1, 180-pound letterman, he is able to throw his female partner into aerial spins and hold her aloft with a single hand.

"He's an outstanding athlete and, as far as cheerleading goes, he can do collegiate stunts," said Carolyn Purkey, the coach of Canoga Park's cheer squad.

Andy and his partner, Aleisha Powell, were state champions in the stunt pairs competition last year and led their squad to a second-place finish at the national championships in Orlando, Fla. This year, with a contingent of seniors returning, the squad is expected to contend for the top spot again.

Such success has been a balm for the 17-year-old senior: His first love remains football, but the Hunters have suffered through a string of dismal seasons, winning only one game last year.

"I need to do something I can win at," said Andy, who also competes for the swimming and track teams. "Cheerleading is basically one of the best things we have at this school."

It was just a matter of time before high school athletes got involved in cheerleading, said Carol Swan, an executive with the International Cheerleading Foundation in Shawnee Mission, Kan. Swan said she began seeing a nationwide trend about five years ago, but has yet to collect data on the number of athlete-cheerleaders.

"College cheerleading has always been co-ed and been a physical sport. Those guys are gymnasts and bodybuilders," Swan said. "Now it has trickled down to the high school level. The high school kids see the college cheerleaders and want to be like them."

Andy's older brother, Doug, started the trend at Canoga Park High in 1988. He was on the football team and his girlfriend was a cheerleader.

"She asked me to come cheer because her stunt partner broke his arm," Doug said.

He quickly showed talent for stunting, leading the squad to a fourth-place finish at the nationals. His younger brother, however, wasn't impressed.

"I thought, 'Oh God, what is he doing?' " Andy said. "In junior high you worry about your image. I found out that in high school you don't worry so much."

Andy joined the squad in his sophomore year. He got teased some but soon established himself both on and off the football field.

"He's a great partner," Aleisha, 17, said. "I trust him. I know Andy isn't going to let me fall."

Soon, other football players were signing up.

"It's harder than it looks," said Adam Ferris, a cheerleader and the team quarterback.

Still, Purkey and other coaches worry that male cheerleaders get stereotyped.

"We never call them yell leaders," Purkey said. "We do athletics and not hold a megaphone and do that sissy yell-leading thing."

At San Fernando High School--the only other Los Angeles-area school to compete at Canoga Park's level--the largely Latino student body comes from a community that frowns upon male cheerleading, said Liz Ballard, the cheer coach.

"They have this machismo thing," said Ballard, who has a football player on her squad. "I sit them down and tell the guys, 'You're going to be called sissies. But remember, you're an athlete.' "

In fact, cheerleading has become so athletic that many schools struggle to compete nationally because their cheer coaches aren't trained to teach acrobatic maneuvers. A plethora of cheerleading camps and professional trainers have sprung up around the country, Swan said.

"As cheerleading becomes more specialized, the kids have to go somewhere to learn," she said.

Doug, now graduated from high school, teaches at summer camps and works with the cheer squad at Taft High School in Woodland Hills and the male cheerleaders at USC.

"It's a great job," he said. "I've been all over the country and to London and Japan. It has opened a lot of doors."

Andy said he has already been approached by the company that employs his brother. He figures that if he can't attract a football scholarship, teaching cheerleading might help pay for college.

"I dreamed of being a pro football player," he said. "But I never got any bigger so I've had to face reality."

He ultimately wants to go to junior college and become a firefighter.

For now, though, there is the promise of a new football season, his last at Canoga Park High. Andy will do quadruple duty as a linebacker, fullback, tight end and kicker. After that comes a busy winter and spring. In the mornings before class, he'll be in the pool with the swim team. On alternating afternoons, he'll practice with the cheerleading and track squads.

One might assume that cheerleading would be the easiest of these workouts. But Andy says that coach Purkey keeps him sweating.

"She yells a lot," he said. "She's like a drill instructor."

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